Ralph Fasanella (1914–1997) celebrated the common man and tackled complex issues of postwar America in colorful, socially minded paintings. This exhibition celebrates the one hundredth anniversary of the artist’s birth and brings together key works from a career spanning fifty-two years. Fasanella was born in the Bronx and grew up in working-class neighborhoods of New York; he became a tireless advocate for laborers’ rights, first as a union organizer and later as a painter.
This major exhibition includes a selection of artworks from the American Folk Art Museum’s collection, which holds more than one hundred paintings and drawings by the artist. The Estate of Ralph Fasanella gifted many of these objects to the museum over the years, in addition to the artist’s notebooks, sketches, correspondence, personal records, photographs, publications, and films, which were donated in 2009 and 2013.
But the two artists exemplify very different kinds of outsiders. Fasanella was a regular guy, a product of the sidewalks and tenements of New York, with breaks for reform school. In his early 30s, a painful tingling in his arms and hands led him to take up drawing and then painting. He worked in a fairly traditional folk style — sort of an updated version of Grandma Moses — but also extended and refreshed it with urgent subject matter, visceral spatial twists and a sophisticated palette.
In his larger works, Fasanella’s consistent populist slant sharpened into genuine political bite that reflected his life experiences: growing up in a struggling immigrant household dominated by a socialist mother, fighting with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade of volunteers in the Spanish Civil War and working as a union organizer. He believed in art that communicated directly with ordinary people, viewing the art world as removed from everyday life. (On the right side of the painting “Modern Times,” he portrays museum galleries hung with abstract art and populated by stiff-looking men and women in black and gray.) Nonetheless, the collector and dealer Sidney Janis and the abstract artist Ad Reinhardt were admirers, as were more socially minded painters like Ben Shahn, Robert Gwathmey and Philip Evergood.